The other face of Smart Grid

The “smart” electric grid may be just a little too smart. Once a smart meter is attached to a home, it can gather a lot more data than just how much electricity a family uses.

It can tell how many people live in the house, when they get up, when they go to sleep and when they aren’t home.

It can tell how many showers they take and loads of laundry they do. How often they use the microwave. How much television they watch and what kind of TV they watch it on.

Almost 200,000 smart meters are now being installed between Fort Collins and Pueblo, and across the country 52 million smart meters will be installed by 2015, according to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimate.

“This is technology that can pierce the blinds,” said Elias Quinn, author of a smart grid privacy study for the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

“Insufficient oversight could lead to an unprecedented invasion of consumer privacy,” Quinn warned in his report to the PUC.

Law enforcement, government agencies and corporations, such as Microsoft and Google, already are eyeing all that data.

The transformation of the electric grid into a smart, sophisticated two-way energy and communication system is seen as a way to better manage power and improve efficiency.

The federal government has put up $3.4 billion to help speed smart-grid development.

The technology, however, poses new questions for consumer and privacy advocates, state regulators and federal officials.

How do you protect the information? Who should have access, and what happens if it falls into the wrong hands?

“Privacy and cybersecurity are among the greatest challenges in implementing the smart grid,” said Nick Sinai, energy and environment director at the Federal Communications Commission.

Tackling privacy issues

Federal agencies and some states — including Colorado and California — are now moving to deal with privacy and security risks posed by the smart grid.

The Colorado PUC opened a docket in August to gather comments on whether the state rules governing privacy are sufficient.

The commission is reviewing the testimony to decide whether further action is necessary, said PUC spokesman Terry Bote.

New rules are needed, said Bill Levis, director of the Colorado Office of Consumer Counsel.

“The Fourth Amendment guards against unreasonable search,” Levis said. “. . . But I don’t think the founding fathers could ever have thought of this kind of stuff.”

Sinai said one lesson from the Internet is that it is cheaper and more effective to build in privacy and security protections at the start.

In the meantime, utilities continue to install smart meters. Xcel is installing 23,000 smart meters in Boulder as part of its SmartGridCity pilot, according to company officials.

By the end of this year, all 96,000 Colorado homes and businesses served by Black Hills Energy will have smart meters, with the help of a $6.1 million federal grant.

Fort Collins has plans to install 79,000 smart meters with the help of $18.1 million in federal funds.

Colorado utilities, executives say, have been collecting and protecting customer data for years.

“The level of data we receive with the smart grid may change, but the privacy principle remains very much the same — specific data stays between us and the customer,” said Megan Hertzler, director of data privacy for Xcel Energy.

Still, Xcel is “getting a lot more requests for customer usage information now that it is seen as more desirable,” Hertzler said.

Most of the inquiries are from companies that want the information for marketing. Xcel has not released any of the data, executives said, and declined to name the companies making the requests.

The key differences between the meter on the side of most houses now and the smart meter deal with time and communication.

Meters are currently read once a month; smart meters take readings every 15 minutes. Future models may take readings every six to eight seconds.

And all that information doesn’t wait for a meter reader. It is instantaneously communicated to the utility by fiber-optic cable, broadband or Wi-Fi.

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